How far will Obama’s support for the Iraqi Kurds go?

August 12, 2014

A Kurdish pesh merga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour from a defensive position. (Sebastian Meyer for The Washington Post)

Shortly after U.S. bombs started to fall in Iraq last week, President Obama made clear what his model for the country's future was.

"The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see," he said in a speech. "It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that that space is protected."

Obama's remarks could simply be interpreted as a helping hand to Iraq's Kurds. But they can also be seen as an acknowledgement that the central government in Baghdad is no longer able to protect the Iraqi region of Kurdistan and might not be for a long time to come. From the time it invaded Iraq in 2003 and continuing after its late-2011 pullout, the United States has supported the country's unity and opposed Kurdish demands for independence.

With fighters of the Islamic State threatening to overwhelm the Kurdish pesh merga fighters, Obama suddenly had to decide: Did he want to continue to place trust in Iraq's government and risk further advances by the Islamic State, or was it more important to support the Kurds even though it could further weaken the ties between the Kurdish region and Baghdad?

A future with or without Iraq

Obama decided for the latter for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of an imminent genocide of tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar. In addition to the humanitarian concerns, there were more practical concerns: Iraqi Kurdistan is rich in oil resources and hosts thousands of foreign workers as well as a U.S. consulate in Irbil.

While airstrikes will support the Kurdish fighters and no time limit has been set for them, The Post's Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock report that the United States has now started to send weapons directly to the Kurds. The level of support for the move from Iraq's central government was unclear.

"Now that the Obama administration is protecting the Kurds, the U.S. will have to take the lead on recognizing Iraqi Kurdistan's sovereignty if Iraq unravels," says David Phillips, the director of Columbia University's program on peace-building and rights, citing a number of Kurdish voices demanding independence.

However, the United States is likely to tread carefully. "Of course, the borders of the region are to some degree historically arbitrary," says Ari Ratner, a former State Department official, referring to the fact that the Kurds were split among Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which created tensions that last until today. "But if you redraw the borders now, you may open a Pandora's box that could further destabilize Iraq and its neighbors," Ratner concludes.

Why Iraq's Kurds are demanding independence

Iraqi Kurdistan is made up of three provinces in Iraq's north that have practically been governed autonomously since 1992. The Iraqi Kurds suffered particularly under Saddam Hussein and fought alongside U.S. troops in 2003 to topple his regime in Baghdad.

A regional Kurdish parliament was formed in 2005, and now the federated region's institutions have legislative and executive power in certain areas such as the regional budget, security and education. However, many rights promised to the Kurds in Iraq's constitution were ignored by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which has been accused of being sectarian and dominated by the interests of Maliki's fellow Shiite Muslims.

Many of the points of contention are of an economic nature: For instance, Maliki's government would have been required to distribute 17 percent of the national income to the Kurdish autonomous region but cut its funding in January because of the Kurdish provinces' continued ambitions to export its oil to gain financial independence.

As a consequence of the ongoing struggle, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, told the BBC in early July that he was planning a referendum on independence within a few months. The recent fighting against the Islamic State might delay such plans in the short term but strengthen them in the long run if the Kurdish region proves to be more resilient than Baghdad.

"Quieter voices in Iraqi Kurdistan say that it's all about timing," Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, explains. While many Kurds are waiting for the right moment to announce independence, other factors will play an equally decisive role.

What an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could look like

At present, a truly independent Iraqi Kurdistan is just an idea. But what might it actually look like if it ever came to fruition? It's useful to consider.

Economy: Since 2003, the autonomous region in northern Iraq has found a major source of revenue in oil resources. Currently, it produces a bit less than 10 percent of Iraq's oil supply, but production is expected to ramp up significantly. In a 2009 cable sent to the State Department and released by WikiLeaks, Iraqi Kurdistan's oil explorations are described as "extremely positive" and outweighing political risks. According to the cable, the deadlock in political negotiations between the autonomous region and Baghdad did not pose a problem to the oil exploitation, which proceeded "full speed ahead."

At the beginning of the year, the Kurdish regional government began exporting its crude through a newly constructed pipeline to Turkey. It planned to export 400,000 barrels a day this year and as much as 1 million barrels by 2015. Given that only about 5 million Kurds live in the region, the oil could prove instrumental in making the provinces financially independent.

Allies/ Trading Partners: Notwithstanding the financial aspect, Iraqi Kurdistan will in all cases remain geopolitically trapped. A look at the region shows that Iraqi Kurdistan borders four countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.


Sources: The Institute for the Study of War, the Long War Journal, CIA World Factbook.

In the case of separation, Kurdistan could not expect any support from the Baghdad government. Iran is hostile to Kurdish independence, although it accepts Iraqi Kurdistan as an autonomous region within Iraq. "Iran fears a spillover effect and its own Kurds becoming restless," Vatanka explains. However, there are also shared interests: Both actors fight the Islamic State, and oil from Iraqi Kurdistan is being transported by truck to refineries in Iran.

Turkey would most likely emerge as Iraqi Kurdistan's biggest trading partner. Despite Turkey's historical political opposition to a sovereign Kurdish state (in no small part due to its own large Kurdish minority), economic ties have recently intensified. Turkish construction companies are building skyscrapers, roads and airports in northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan "is a windfall for Turkey," Phillips says. Even Turkey's own, long-simmering Kurdish nationalist movement might not be a factor. If Turkey accepted an Iraqi Kurdistan, the latter would probably be dependent on the former, and Turkey's own Kurdish nationalist groups would struggle to compete.

Governance: Iraqi Kurdistan has been practically autonomous for more than 20 years and is widely considered to have some of the strongest administrative institutions in the region. Its security forces have been weakened but could be re-equipped through U.S. support.

The role of the U.S. 


President Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq at the White House on Thursday. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

In the end, any decision on Iraqi Kurdistan's status will also come down to this: How much leeway will the United States give to the Kurds? Obama's support has certainly fueled debate within Iraqi Kurdistan. The majority of analysts The Post spoke to expect no declaration of independence in the near future.

"I don't suppose it is an immediate priority," says Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, who refers to the more immediate threat posed by the Islamic State.

Ratner, a former Obama appointee, agrees: "There is reluctance among U.S. policymakers to do things that might exacerbate an already difficult situation. We are in a crisis right now, and Kurdish independence is a much longer-term question."

During a news conference in Sydney after the naming of a new Iraqi prime minister, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed cautious optimism in the new leadership. (Reuters)
Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at The Washington Post.
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